Curbside Classic: 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass 4-4-2 – Esmerelda Had More Sympathy For Quasimodo Than Did The General

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For many years now, I have been a firm believer in two things:

1)  If you are patient, your patience will be rewarded , and often quite well.

2)  There is something positive in everything.  Sometimes this positive thing shows up immediately; sometimes it waits until much later; but, it always shows up.

Having been on the lookout for an aeroback Oldsmobile for a while, little did I suspect I’d find a 4-4-2 version, thereby proving Jason’s Rule #2: Indeed, something good resulted from my having to visit the hospital for an x-ray on a Saturday afternoon.

It also helps to be living once again in a town heavily populated with folks who, like me, are of a frugal and pragmatic nature, refusing to purge anything of (real or perceived) value.  One of my very first CC posts  (here) articulated my awe of the large number of still-running General Motors A-bodies throughout this area. This is another of them, albeit a tad bit older.  Maybe this one isn’t a Curbside Classic in the literal sense–it rested at the top of a near-vertical embankment behind the curb–but when was the last time you saw another Oldsmobile like this one?

The pixels in these pictures were hardly dry, so to speak, when I started this article.  Much of my motivation and ambition for covering this car came from wanting to determine whether or not this particular example was a bold attempt to be something it wasn’t. Although I suspected it was genuine, I have found (admitted) frauds only blocks away (here and here), so I was eager to verify this Cutlass’s DNA.  So then, is this a faux 4-4-2, or the genuine article? First, let’s look at a little history.

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We all likely know that GM began the Great Downsizing in 1977.  That was the last year for the A-bodies, a.k.a. the Colonnades, before their clearly overdue sessions with the GM dietitians and liposuction artists.

During much of the ’70s, Cutlass sales had reigned supreme, often propelling Oldsmobile into the often-variable (but always enviable) third-place position in U.S. sales. (Tom Klockau wrote a great piece about a 1976 Cutlass Supreme here.)

And what does a Cutlass look like after an intimate encounter with a scalpel?

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If you are talking Cutlass Supreme, things turned out rather decently.  Sales of the redesigned ’78s reflected that decency, as Olds dealers moved 398,919 Supremes of this body style in various trim levels.  Although less than 1977’s total, that was hardly anything to sneeze at.

And because this was Oldsmobile–the same company that would go on to slather the “Cutlass” name on almost everything they built in the 1980s–this, naturally, was not the only Cutlass variant.

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The Cutlass certainly looked great as a wagon.  Now downsized, the A-body wagon remained popular with folks who hauled stuff, with only 6,163 fewer sold in 1978 than in the previous year.

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Then there is the Cutlass Salon sedan.  This isn’t looking very promising, considering how that guy doesn’t appear very thrilled overseeing his new car.  In 1978, 51,411 Salon sedans would find homes.

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Then there was the Cutlass Salon coupe, of which 31,939 copies were sold.  There’s an ugly puppy in every litter, but this litter was twice-cursed.  Oldsmobile, along with Buick, jumped off the high dive and right into this empty swimming pool; miraculously, the other GM divisions managed to avoid it like the brown, floaty clump in the pool that it was.  Paul has the Cutlass Salon covered here.

quasimodo

image source:  www.ericcressey.com

How does one best describe the aeroback Oldsmobile?  To my eye, it looks a lot like Quasimodo.  For those of you who, like me, greatly respect shorter pieces of literature, here’s a nifty Cliff’s Notes version of sorts.

The Cutlass Salon was hairy ass ugly, no doubt about it.  Like Quasimodo, it repulsed plenty of people, a circumstance duly reflected by its sales numbers.  This body style of Cutlass could also be considered a novelty, as sales fell precipitously (sort of like being shoved off the roof of a cathedral) in 1979, and again,  to a mere 4,394, in 1980. Following that performance, Oldsmobile euthanized the beast and grafted a first-generation Cadillac Seville roof onto the sedan version; and then, wonder of wonders, sales shot through that very same roof.

Yet poor Quasimodo, as we all should know by now, was actually a kind-hearted but physically ugly soul.  These Salons did have all the durable and desirable A-body bones despite what had been draped over them.  General Motors was simply trying to answer a marketing call for better space utilization.  After their 1973 Colonnade bodies–in coupe form, hardly paragons of space efficiency– GM was simply trying to be responsive.  Wise utilization of space was a concept that was rapidly catching on with U.S. consumers at the time (remember, Chrysler sold 180,659 of their Omnirizons that year), so the idea was not entirely foreign.

But GM, being GM, apparently adopted the Burger King mentality and wanted things their way. Really, why make the effort to build a car that appears to be a hatchback, one whose very design begs to be a hatchback–and not give it a hatchback?  As my grandmother would say, this was like putting on a tuxedo without changing your underwear–nobody likes to be lured into a nasty surprise.  Not having been up close and personal with this particular car, I can only imagine the space wasted inside this Oldsmobile as it’s constructed.  Further, I can only imagine the number of sales lost because of the promise of utility that simply didn’t pan out.

Yes, this car is like Quasimodo: a terrific and kind soul clothed in exterior garments that, by form and circumstance, will never allow the fullest realization of its potential.

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This all brings us back to our featured car, and to the question you are yearning to have answered.  Is it a true 4-4-2, or someone’s high-quality, backyard brainstorm?  Did one even exist during this ebb of automotive performance?  Of course one existed; GM wants to make a dollar, just like anybody else.

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With a standard 3.8-liter V6, the 1978 drivetrain alone was enough to thoroughly erode the cachet of the 4-4-2 legend: Perhaps “4-4-2” now stood for four wheels, four shock absorbers, and a 2-barrel carburetor.

For 1979, more frightfulness was theoretically possible. The information available at www.oldcarbrochures.com barely mentions the 4-4-2 in the Salon section.  Since it mentions the new-for-1979 availability of the 260 cu in diesel V8 in the Salon, and nothing indicating “not available on 4-4-2 models” except a reference to the engine application guide, you can see where this is headed. According to other online 4-4-2 resources, only gas engines were available on the 4-4-2; let’s just hope they’re right, and that Oldsmobile didn’t allow the 4-4-2 name to be totally defiled.

Just be careful in saying never, as you can easily jinx yourself.

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Yes, there was indeed an Olds Cutlass 4-4-2, in the Salon coupe body style, for both 1978 and 1979.

As an aside, this picture does pose a thought-provoking question:  Which was more plentiful: the ’78 Olds 4-4-2, or the ’78 Olds Delta 88 police package?

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